The Philadelphia Quakers

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CraigBaird

The Philadelphia Flyers are a storied franchise in NHL history. The first 1967 expansion team to win the Stanley Cup, they would capture the trophy in 1974 and 1975. Along the way, they also claimed eight conference championships and 16 division championships. A total of 13 former players and six builders from the team are inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

This episode isn’t about the Philadelphia Flyers though, it is about the Philadelphia Quakers, a team that was far from successful in its one, and only, NHL season.

To begin the history of the Quakers, we need to go back to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were the third American-based team to join the NHL. Joining the league in 1925, the team would do well, making the playoffs in two of its first three seasons but following the start of The Great Depression, the team was hit hard and several star players were sold off. In 1927-28, the team drew only 40,000 fans for the season, while Ottawa was bringing in 100,000 fans. By the end of the 1929-30 season, the team was $400,000 in debt and the arena was not suitable for an NHL team.

At the time, Bill Dwyer, a bootlegger who also owned the New York Americans, was the owner of the team and Benny Leonard dealt with the team for him. Leonard was a prizefighter who had held the world lightweight title from 1917 to 1925, Leonard would request permission to move the team to Philadelphia. He would say, quote:

“I am confident Philadelphia will take to hockey in another year or two, it can’t miss.”

The move was approved and the team name was changed to Quakers, honouring the Quakers who helped to found Philadelphia. The plan was for the Philadelphia Quakers to operate until the Pittsburgh Pirates had a new arena.

That would not be what would happen.

There was little interest in the team coming to Philadelphia. When it was announced that the move would happen, it warranted only a three-paragraph brief with the headline “Quaker City to Get Big League Hockey” in the Philadelphia Inquirer. When the transfer was made official four days later, it was only a five paragraph story.  

There was hope that the team would see some success in its new city, but if anything the team was worse off than before.

The Pirates had a terrible record of five wins and 36 losses, with three ties to finish last in the American division and out of the playoffs. Amazing as it seems, the Quakers would sink to an even lower depth.

There was a plan for the team to play in a new arena when it was built, but that arena would not come until 1961. Leonard would tell the press, quote:

“We will build a Madison Square Garden-like facility in three years or so. It will be the kind of place where women can come in evening dress without fear of being hit in the face with a frankfurter.”

The coach for that first season would be Cooper Smeaton, who had previously been a referee in the NHL before taking on the role as coach. This would be the only year he would ever coach. Hib Milks, who had played for the Pittsburgh Pirates through their entire existence, would be the captain of the team.

On Nov. 6, 1930, the Quakers would send $35,000 to the Ottawa Senators to receive a loan of Syd Howe, Wally Kilrea and Al Shields. Howe had played 12 games for his hometown Ottawa Senators during the 1929-30 season, his first in the NHL, and he was then loaned to the Quakers for the 1930-31 season, which would be his first full NHL season.

For the first two games of the season, the Quakers did not score a single goal and it was not until their third game that the team registered its first goal. Their first game resulted in a 3-0 loss and in order to energize fans, their owner Leonard dressed his ushers in tuxedos and hung banners from the rafters. Many fans left the arena before the game was over. In all, only 4,000 showed up for the first game in the 6,000 seat arena. A week later, only 2,000 fans showed up. It would take another three games before the team had its first win, which they achieved on Nov. 25, 1930, in a 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. By that win, the team had been outscored 19-5 and the Maple Leafs had just won its first five games by shutout. Everyone on the Maple Leafs thought they would win, with Busher Jackson, a forward for the Leafs, saying, quote:

“The only way Smeaton and his gang will keep me from ringing in four goals is to put me in jail.”

The team celebrated that first win by losing the next 15 straight games before a 4-3 victory over the Montreal Maroons. That 15 straight losing record would remain a record until the Washington Capitals of 1974-75 lost 17 straight.

The New York Post would print, quote:

“The Philly hosts look like the weakest force in the circuit on paper. They’re every bit of that on the ice.”

Leonard would say to the press around this time, quote:

“We must make a good start and I will spare no expense to give the fans what they want. We have other deals in mind which will be consumed if the men we have no fail to deliver. Once you see them in action, you will say they have the goods.”

On Christmas night, the Quakers were gifted an 8-0 loss at the hands of the Boston Bruins, the worst loss in the team’s history. The game also included two third-period brawls that sent policemen ontot he ice to restore order.

LeRoy Atkinson would write, quote:

“The good officers, without skates or galoshes, were tumbling over the sideboards in all sorts of fantastic attitudes.”

Six players, three on each team, were fined $15 each for the fight. The Quakers took their time paying, likely because money was already tight.

By mid-January, the team was 2-20-1 and when the topic of fines came up, they wrote a letter to NHL president Frank Calder stating, quote:

“Please take our fines out of our share of the playoffs.”

The team would only beat three teams in the NHL, which at the time consisted of 10 teams in all. They would beat Toronto and the Montreal Maroons once, and the Detroit Falcons twice. Every other team either recorded wins or ties against the Quakers.

By the end of the season, the team had recorded four wins, 36 losses and four ties. This gave the team an astounding winning percentage of .136, the lowest in NHL history at the time. That record would remain until the Washington Capitals beat it with a .131 winning percentage in the 1974-75 season. With only four wins, the team tied the 1919-20 Quebec Bulldogs for the fewest wins in NHL history. The team would only score 76 goals, while giving up 184 against. The next closest team had 42 less goals against than the Quakers. With their 12 points, the team was a full 50 points behind the first place Boston Bruins, and the fourth place Detroit Falcons were 27 points ahead of the team, with 14 more wins. As for fans, the team averaged a terrible 2,500 fans per game.

The last game of the season summed up the team’s fortunes perfectly. On March 14, in a game against Montreal, the two teams were at a 4-4 tie in the second period. The goalie for the Quakers had suffered a severe facial laceration. With no backup, and not wanting to forfeit, the team brought in Hugh McCormack, an Ontario sportswriter who had played goal in the minor leagues. By the end of the game, he had performed better than the starting goalie, letting in only one goal.

The team had lost $500,000, a fortune at the time, requiring Leonard to go back into the boxing ring at the age of 36, after five years in retirement, in order to recoup some money. In just over a year, he fought 20 bouts, winning 16 against hand-picked opponents who couldn’t match him, even as he was pudgy and slower than in his prime.

Gerry Lowrey would lead the team in points with 27 in 43 games, while Hib Milks led the team in goals with 17 in 44 games.

There was one bright spot for the team that year and it was in the form of Syd Howe. Howe would finish third on the team in points, recording 20 in 44 games. Howe would eventually find his way to the Detroit Red Wings, where he won three Stanley Cups in 1936, 1937 and 1943. Upon his retirement in the 1945-46 season, he would be the last active Quaker player in the NHL. In 1965, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the only player from the Quakers to make the Hall.

Of his time on the team, Howe would say, quote:

“It was a scrappy team but there wasn’t enough talent.”

So what would happen to some of the other main players on that team? Let’s take a look.

Coach Cooper Smeaton would go back to his previous role as the referee-in-chief, a role that eventually landed him in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Gerry Lowrey, the point-leader for the team, would continue playing until 1933 in the NHL before he retired.

Hib Milks, the captain and goal-scoring leader, would also play until 1933, spending time with the New York Rangers.

Wally Kilrea would play until 1938, winning two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings. In 1940-41 and 1941-42, he was a Calder Cup finalist with the Hershey Bears. He would go on to coach the Johnstown Jets to two consecutive EHL championships in 1952 and 1953. From 1947 to 1949, he would also coach the Philadelphia Rockets.

Al Shields would continue to play until 1938, and was selected to the first-ever NHL All-Star team in 1934. In 1935, he helped the Montreal Maroons win the Stanley Cup.

Johnny McKinnon would end his career the same year that the Quakers folded but he would coach the St. Louis Flyers in the AHA to four league championships from 1936 to 1941.

D’Arcy Coulson, who was third in the league with the Quakers in penalty minutes with 103, only two minutes behind Eddie Shore, would establish the Coulson Hotel in Sudbury, Ontario. The hotel still exists and boasts the longest operating bar in the city.

Billy Cude, the starting goaltender for the team, played 30 games and had a goals against average of 4.22, winning only two games. He would go on to Montreal and then Detroit, where he helped lead them to the Stanley Cup Final in 1933-34, only to lose to Chicago. In that Final, he surrendered the first overtime Cup clinching goal in NHL history. He would serve as the Canadiens starting goalie from 1934 to 1939, earning Second Team All-Star honours in 1936 and 1937.

As for the arena that the team played it, it would last a lot longer before it burned down on Aug. 24, 1983.

After the season was over, the team announced that they would not be able to field a team in the 1931-32 season. This spelled the end for NHL hockey in Philadelphia until 1967, when the Philadelphia Flyers were part of The Great Expansion.  The Ottawa Senators would also suspend operations the same year as the Quakers due to financial difficulties.

M.J. Rodden would write about the Ottawa Senators, for the Toronto Globe, quote:

“Memories of their glorious deeds will live.”

He would add, for the Quakers, quote:

“No one will miss those hopeless tail-enders.”

Information from NHL.com, Wikipedia, Quakers.FlyersHistory.net, BroadStreetHockey, Litterboxcats.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, VintageHockeyCardsReport.com,

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